The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: community

Election 2015 and the One-Percent

Cat with lion shadow

IT WAS ONLY A WEEK AGO THAT PUNDITS were arguing if “change” was really a factor in the campaign. Things weren’t shaking up much and parties appeared to be in a kind of holding pattern. Not anymore. Movement is showing up in the polling numbers and a sense of new life is emerging in this long campaign season. Voter sentiment is getting aroused and now media coverage is talking about change in its stories.

Will it be enough to set us in a new direction as a country? If you asked someone like American activist Ralph Nader you might be encouraged by his answer. Honoured by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th Century, Nader thinks that citizens really have to think this moment through.

“It all comes down to this question: Are enough people going to take the reins of a democratic society, move it right into the electoral arena, and then reflect sensible majority public opinion, which already exists, despite party propaganda.”

Nader figures that if just 1% of citizens who weren’t mere political robots but people interested in finding common ground would join forces and tell candidates and leaders what kind of country they wanted that the political momentum would swing in favour of a consensus. That seems impossible, yet he conducted a large study in 2012 that provided that 1% figure – “even less than 1% could do it,” he maintains.

He reasons that candidates themselves don’t know how to handle such a development. “They are very used to controlling the process, trivializing it, turning people off. They don’t care if they turn people off if it’s in the form of cynicism, because cynicism means withdrawal. In that sense, we then leave the control to the political power players and nothing changes.”

Nader believes that two key activities are required by those seeking to find commonalities across party lines: 1) if 1% of the people become very engaged in civic life; and 2) if this same group gathered together and publicly reflected on the areas of what he calls “public sentiment.”

To support that premise, he points out that at least 24 issues are supported by “heavy majorities” of people from the Left and the Right. They include challenges such as electoral reform, climate change, a higher minimum wage, even action on poverty that are supported by some 70-80% of citizens, not politicians. Why, then, can’t we put a civil coalition of something like that together that would effectively challenge the political class, moving it closer to compromise? It’s actually an action plan that could have some serious effect, but the reality is that citizens don’t know how to go about it.

Nader throws cold water on the sentiment that politics is no longer where the real action is. “But that is where the action’s at. Why are the lobbyists all over Congress if they believe politics is ineffective?” He’s right. If a lawful country can have its history altered by powerful interests that fight to alter legislation in their favour, then it makes sense that such forces would get as close to the place of lawmaking as possible.

And there’s the rub. Citizens don’t make laws; their elected representatives do. But if citizens and voters don’t remain in contact with the political process, it is inevitable that other powerful interests will fill in the vacuum left by their absence. If Nader is even close to right about the 1% number, we are far closer to renewing democracy than we realize and we could cast a long shadow.  But it will take citizens who search for a place of compromise as opposed to a partisanship of contention. It’s there, right in front of us. Only 350,000 collaborative citizens (1% of our population, or the size of London, Ontario) could get it done.

Election 2015: Politicians Should Understand Precarious Work

92570157IT’S A TOPIC THAT SEEMS to be all around us. Economists, social activists, researchers, corporate execs, educators, media commentators, labour researchers – all of these have spent the last few years focusing on “precarious work” as an omnipresent reality in each of our communities. That’s also true for my own city, London. Tomorrow morning, at King’s University College, there is a conference on this very issue featuring two noted Canadian economists. You can find out more about it here. The more people attending events such as these, the quicker we’ll start asking ourselves if temporary or precarious work is the kind of future we want in Canada.

The future of work itself is increasingly occupying Canadian conversations, but not in the political realm, even with the election now well underway. The key platforms of the parties talk about jobs, jobs, jobs, but that has always been the case, and following each recession in the last 30 years, the job numbers continue to decline. There is a disconnect between proposed policies and present realities and we’re no closer to solutions that we were three or four elections ago.

Author H. P. Lovecraft noted that, “from even the greatest of problems, irony is seldom absent.” He might as easily have been referring to political life, since few jobs carry such uncertainty as being a politician. You can be greatly appreciated but lose because of a split vote. People might like you but not your leader. Or you might not have performed to voter’s expectations. When times are difficult or confining, as they are now, no politician is beyond the desire of the average voter for change.

When times are good, policy can be predominant. Yet if change is in the air, politics becomes about passions, anger, euphoria, disillusionment, even despair. In such a context, the politician can feel like the most vulnerable employee on the planet.

Why, as a consequence, can’t communities get more serious attention from political folks on such an issue, especially considering they have “lived experience” on the matter? Was Abraham Lincoln right, then, when he told a friend, “A statesman is he who thinks in the future generations, and a politician is he who thinks in the upcoming election?” Or how about Paulo Coelho’s take on it?

“Culture makes people understand each other better.  And if they understand each other better in their soul, it is easier to overcome the economic and political barriers.  But first they have to understand that their neighbour is, in the end, just like them, with the same problems, the same questions.”

The issue here isn’t about people having any kind of job, but of citizens inhabiting healthy jobs that permit them to contribute to their respective communities. It hard to build a culture of prosperity and inclusion when your life is taken up with worrying if you’ll still have your job next week, next month, next year. Politicians should understand that as well as anyone, but why can’t they make precarious work part of this election campaign in ways that are relevant and not merely aspirational?

Too many people are living out William Shakespeare’s observation in The Merchant of Venice: “You take my life when you take the means whereby I live.” Following this election, a greater or lesser number of MPs are going to live through that experience, perhaps wishing, once feeling the crunching nature of loss, that they had shown more attention to the precarious work file while they were still in the position to make change.

Hibernating Bigotry

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WITH A FEDERAL ELECTION HEATING UP, the political establishment will come after citizens once more, asking them what they want and promising to give it to them if they would but vote. You’d think that after a time, especially following years of political dysfunction, that this being catered to every four years or so would begin to grate on us somewhat. And perhaps it has and that is part of the reason voter turnout continues to decline.

But politicians know something about us that they would never say and we would never admit: we aren’t just a people of myriad opinions, but of latent prejudices that we quietly live out each day but which we never let fully out into the open. Thus the political order, perhaps even especially in election time, plays to that part of us. ill Clinton, alluded to this tendency in his 1995 State of the Union address:

“If you go back to the beginning of this country, the great strength of America has always been our ability to associate with people who were different from ourselves and to work together to find common ground. And in this day, everybody has a responsibility to do more of that. We simply can’t wait for a tornado, a fire, or a flood to behave like Americans ought to behave in dealing with one another.”

And then Clinton opened up about the prejudice politicians often have for citizens, and it wasn’t pretty: “Most of us in politics haven’t helped very much. For years, we’ve mostly treated citizens like they were consumers or spectators, sort of political couch potatoes who were supposed to watch our political TV ads either promise them something for nothing or play on their fears and frustrations.”

And, so, there it was, how politicians see us. That sad part is that they might, in part at least, be correct. Clinton’s solution to this “silo” form of citizenship was a “New Covenant,” in which citizens get back to the prime task of getting to know one another and working together – something most Americans never got around to.

Recently, Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University, gave a major speech to educators, in which she called up the ghosts of what she called “hibernating bigotry.” She quoted from the book, Taking on Diversity: “We stay away from the interpersonal level where bigotry implicates us all, refusing to acknowledge it. We leave it to our children to carry our baggage on their backs.”

It is easy to spot outright bigotry, and it’s likely our kids see it quicker that we do, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. It’s not about race riots, public violence against women, or the comments by the haters on social media. Most of us rightly avoid such things, even taking stands against them. No, were talking about the “subtle” forms of bigotry. It’s about the distance we place between ourselves and those struggling in the mental health cycle. It’s our quiet avoidance of people from ethnic populations who might make us feel uncomfortable, as we do them. It’s about how we tolerate a growing poverty in our nation, attempting to ameliorate our conscience with the odd donation. It’s the anonymous despair we feel when we increasingly learn of hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women but somehow don’t get around to joining a movement to get the feds to finally deal with it.

But it goes even deeper, this legacy of taking democracy for granted without ever really entering it or truly fighting for it. It’s about how we pull back when we come to understand that the solution to poverty will involve the sacrifice of all citizens, sometimes with taxes, other times by joining together to end homelessness in our communities. And it’s when we become increasingly aware of the impact of climate change but can’t quite manage to alter our lifestyle to play our own part more significantly in healing the planet. I wrestle with all the issues within myself, so I’m presuming many of us face the same battle. Except, in my case at least, it’s not so much a conflict as it is a quiet prejudice of placing myself and my family over truly taking part in healing society and the environment at the same time.

Presidential candidate, John Dewey, put it this was in 1937: “Democracy has to be enacted anew in every generation, in every day and year, in the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions.”

Are we ready for this? Am I? Because the political order is banking on the fact we aren’t and that we can be played according to our prejudices. Perhaps this is the worst aspect of politics, but it represents the shame of citizenship if we can’t transcend our own limitations and persuade politicians to make the tough choices. If we can, though, then this next election will not only bring about a new life of democracy, but a higher kind of politics in the process.



Growing Through Social Media

MY FRIEND JODI LAUNCHED HER NEW BUSINESS this week and used social media to get the word out (@CityMatchLdn on Twitter). It was exciting to see how quickly word spread and the support she gathered in just a few hours.

It caused me to think back to a time only a few years ago when a good number of us quickly coalesced around Facebook and Twitter as our main method of interacting with one another. So much has changed, mostly us. At times communicating through such venues was a rough ride. There were the usual suspects – the haters, the trolls, the overt attention seekers, the underminers, even the political hacks – but for the rest of us there were misunderstandings to be corrected, friendships restored or strengthened, and the overriding sense that we had a community to build. Jodi learned along with the rest of us that social media would be ineffective unless it helped connect us to one another and to a larger purpose.

We all came to realize that social media carried a certain burden with it. It makes sense, since CNN recently completed a series on how social media has direct implications on mental health. We can share our successes, gain affirmation, even supporters, but we can all be belittled by those who delight in the prospect of tearing down others while remaining anonymous. Those of us trying to anything productive within a community context know what this feels like.

And yet we stuck with it. We grew, learned how to block or unfriend, even take social media breaks, and how to fight for more constructive communication, and how to defend those under attack from individuals and groups. Over time, I’ve noted how this group of mostly Londoners have refined their communications, used words and phrases which led to a more enlightened sense of responsibility. In other words, we’ve grown. We hung in there with each other and eventually built a better public space on social media itself. We grew through the various venues, refining it and ourselves in the process.

Jodi’s announcement this week wasn’t just about something new; it was also about stickability, the willingness to tough it out and eventually glean the benefits of helping to build a community and keep it together. She used social media to do that and is now taking it to another level, launching her own startup and bringing her community along with her in the process.

She has used social media effectively, learned how to be positive and express gratitude when required, and apply a firm hand when needed. But above all she build her communication with an emphasis on “social,” and not just “media.” Jodi expanded contacts and kept In touch, using social media to grow community, just as she now hopes to transform some of that community into a steady base of customers, all the while creating her own story. In other words, it’s being social that matters. Without that, all that other communications mechanisms lead to little.

We’ve all had to learn that when social media was just about giving our opinions, criticizing others, or disrupting an emerging consensus, it leads us to more anger and confusion. But when used to bring together, to seek common ground, air differences respectfully, and uncover common solutions, community is bettered and we are empowered as citizens in the process.

Writer Sydney Harris put it clearly: “information or opinions are just about giving out; effective communication is about getting through.” It’s a lesson we are learning, and Jodi has stuck with it long enough that she will refine her network to build a business. The time has come for all community builders and businesses with a social conscience to utilize the digital tools at our disposal to create the kind of world and prosperity we want. Jodi is a reminder of what’s possible for all of us if we build our relationships, support one another, and learn to build together. And she’s about to have her faith affirmed that these very values are the foundations of a successful business.

When Government Disappears


THE SIGNS OF IT ARE EVERYWHERE – university tuitions almost out of reach; poverty both systemic and entrenched; the decline in research almost across the board; significant cuts to foreign aid and diplomatic initiatives; and an increasing sense that Ottawa might as well be situated in some other country.

Then there is the emotional damage created when a people no longer look to the future with a robust sense of optimism or to government with any real kind of expectation. This collective decline in optimism is, in every way, as significant as the previously mentioned challenges.

Government itself is changing and it’s in the process of disappearing. The so-called “austerity agenda” has crippled numerous regions, including southwestern Ontario, and the much hoped for “austerity dividend” never really arrived. Proportionally, it seems as though only the wealthy and corporations are better off for all this. Governments, once so essential to our collective and individual quality of life, are in retreat but show no inclination to inform us that they are slowly leaving the field.

For three decades now the message has remained consistently the same: governments are to big, corporations require more tax breaks, and citizens do too. And so we bought into the rhetoric, watching with increasing alarm as the things we valued and cherished continue to be chipped away in favour of global competitiveness and domestic restructuring.

And it’s all gotten us where exactly? Phenomenal wealth has been created even during our times of restraint but it feels less and less like it descends into our lives. The tools we require to function as a prosperous and affluent nation no longer seem in our hands. Our public infrastructure – roads, railways, harbours, airports, electricity and water – will require literally billions to repair and upgrade, but that isn’t likely to happen when we can even contain the costs of spiraling post-secondary education.

In dealing with this decline in discretionary spending, governments feel they have only one option: slowly disappear from public expectations. And though it appears to be working (Canadians continue to feel less confidence in government’s ability to solve our greatest obstacles), the result is that the country itself is functioning less and less. We would never anticipate constructing a St. Lawrence Seaway today or expanding rail service across the entire country. We know better than to expect that from governments that continue to cry poor.

Part of the reason governments can shrink back into the background is because citizens have been doing the same thing. With little engagement and persuasion possible with their political representatives, Canadians feel they can do little else but provide for their families and perhaps focus instead on their local communities. Some battles are being won, but the war will be lost if we continue down this road.

With capitalism and democracy beset by numerous interconnected problems, and wealth housing itself in international venues far away from our beleaguered communities, it appears likely that the partnership between economic prosperity and social justice is no longer strong enough to carry us into the future. Three of the top ten economists listed by The Economist magazine – Paul Krugman, Thomas Piketty, and Joseph Stiglitz – worry that the historical consensus between these two important partners is perhaps beyond repair. The only thing that can restore it is a healthy democracy, where citizens successfully transition their ideals into the political space. But that’s no working so well now either.

This is precisely this time when visionary politics is supposed to show up, just as in the past. Instead, we have political parties looking to the middle-class to help them capture government when their ultimate concern should be for the welfare of all Canadians, not just one sector.

Naturally, there will be those who resent such thoughts, claiming things have never been better. But we all know that view is no longer saleable. Globe and Mail columnist, Lawrence Martin, reminded us recently that we are enduring the lowest run of economic growth in eight decades. He says the economists he has spoken to expect the trend to continue. He quotes Ivey Business School’s Paul Booth’s concern: “If we have another decade of growth at such a low rate, a whole bunch of economies, including emerging economies, will catch up and pass us by.”

If our political and economic elite maintain that the only answer to this is to head down the same course but at a faster rate, then our decline will only come that much quicker. Our only way of keeping governments from fading away from their responsibilities is to challenge them to present us with new and different visions for discovering a more equal and sustainable future and for us as citizens to be willing to invest in that future. Like it or not, government is us, and we can’t lose it without losing ourselves.

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